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‘We pray we won’t leave there like we came in’

Five-part Preaching Lab delves into the spoken word in the Black worship context

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Chineta Goodjoin is pastor at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California. (Photo courtesy of Presbytery of Los Ranchos)

LOUISVILLE — The Preaching Lab, a five-part online workshop offered by New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, through a grant by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opened Saturday by asking participants to define what preaching means to them. Their definitions included:

  • “To share God’s word in a manner that is relatable and applicable to the congregation”
  • “Proclamation of the Word and the abundance of God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, protection and provision”
  • “A celebration of God’s Word in a dialogue format”
  • “The sharing of the Good News to the believers and seekers in our world”
  • “The art and craft of sharing the love of God and the hope of glory in challenging times”
  • “Listening to the Spirit speak and sharing that”
  • “A way to help people understand the Word of God in a way that connects with their reality”
  • “An effort to summon the presence of God into the sanctuary, and to help the listener connect with the God within.”

“While most mainstream white churches have structure, in the Black church the structure is defined by the moving of the Holy Spirit,” said the Rev. Chineta Goodjoin, pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church, “knowing that everyone plays a part in sharing the Word of God and living into the Word of God even before the preacher moves to the pulpit area.”

“The hearer, who’s often marginalized or oppressed, who’s been dealt blows in racial injustice, needs to hear from the preacher, ‘You are set free, right now.’ We are taking the Word of God and bringing God’s presence and hope and freedom into your soul today because we need it.”

The preacher is not working alone, of course. That’s one reason that her professor, Dr. Melva Costen, used to say “very clearly, that the choir has a song and a sermon all together,” Goodjoin said. “Do not underestimate the choir,” Costen once said, “and its call to preach!”

“People come to church with the expectation of ‘having church,’” she said. “The preached word — whether given by a lay person or a teaching elder — is deeply theological and practically delivered. It’s brought through stories, illustrations and object lessons and must regard suffering by identifying with a revolutionary and radical Jesus who understands pain and the plight of injustice.”

“The preached word is a call-and-response word,” Goodjoin said. “It’s a dialogue between the preacher and the community. If you come in hurting about George Floyd, we aren’t going to ignore that conversation.”

“The preached word,” she said, “is celebratory, it’s sacred and soulful, and it should never be abused or abusive.”

The Rev. Kamal Hassan is pastor of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, California.

“The expectation,” said the Rev. Kamal Hassan, the pastor of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, California, who’s helping to teach the online course, “is you won’t just hear something, but you’ll feel something in your body” as the result of faithful preaching. “This collides with what we learn as Presbyterians: that preaching is not just oral and aural, but it’s bodily. We pray we won’t leave there like we came in. There’s the expectation that I’m going to be made new, I’m going to be delivered. That’s part of the experience between the preacher and the hearers.”

Goodjoin said when she was considering an offer to plant an African American Church in Orange County — which had no centralized Black neighborhood and whose Black population was under 2%, she noted — a person who would become a member told her, “I pray that you will be your authentic self before God and not feel the need to assimilate or deny the truth of the gospel in you.”

“As a lifelong Presbyterian, I had never heard anybody say that to me,” Goodjoin said. “I knew that I could truly let the Spirit lead, no matter who God sent through the doors. That remains freeing to live into — a full-bodied worship experience where people are set free.”

“Trying to coerce people to cry without speaking deeply of God’s movement in the community and in our personal lives means we are not being sincere,” Goodjoin said. “It’s not about me — it’s about what God does through us.”

Hassan pointed out that most services in Black congregations include a sermonic hymn, where the choir sings just ahead of the reading of Scripture and the preaching of the Word.

“That hymn sets the tone and is supposed to treble the heart of the preacher,” he said. “It opens the door. It gets into you and gives you something to start with. That’s the hope, at least. The Spirit comes even stronger upon you if that is done the right kind of way.”

The same can be true, Goodjoin said, through “powerful testimony from someone vulnerable enough to share with the congregation.”

“When you are preaching, people respond verbally to what you are doing,” Hassan said. “You hear them. They give you cues and clues. What you prepared the Spirit may move it another way. It makes [preaching] such an experience.”

Edith Stein, a German Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and was killed in the gas chamber at the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1942, was “a womanist theologian before there were any,” said the Rev. Dr. Don Oliver, another course contributor and a retired hospital chaplain.

Stein taught that preachers “speak with our bodies, especially people who have been oppressed,” Oliver said. “We take that experience and convert it into words. Then people hear that and have an experience in their bodies. That give-and-take process is mysterious and magical and interesting. In the African American tradition, we feel it, and we feel it deeply. If you have no feeling, that’s a time of horror, because we need a response.”

Saturday’s 90-minute course concluded with the viewing of the sermon “Lost Opportunities,” preached to the The Riverside Church in New York City last March by the Rev. Dr. Cleo LaRue. View LaRue’s sermon here.

The Preaching Lab resumes at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on Jan. 16, 2021, and continues Feb. 20 and March 20, with an optional preaching exercise set for April 17. Learn more here.

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